DEHRADUN, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – India’s devastated Himalayan state of Uttarakhand has to adopt a new approach to development after the floods and landslides that killed almost 6,000 people and wrecked buildings, roads and bridges last month, the state’s chief minister said.
The heaviest rainfall on record caused swollen rivers and glacier lakes to burst their banks and triggered huge landslides across the Himalayas, geologically a relatively young and unstable mountain range.
Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has come under a barrage of criticism from some environmentalists who say the disaster was “man-made.”
They say the construction of hydro-electric dams, involving blasting tunnels through mountains to carry diverted flows of water, illegal yet rampant deforestation and the spread of unregulated buildings along river banks worsened the impact of the unprecedentedly heavy monsoon rains.
"We have to do development differently,” said Bahuguna, when asked in an interview by the Thomson Reuters Foundation whether he planned to change his development policy, given the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas.
“We have to have planned and sustainable development where we respect the environment but also improve our economic growth. The two have to go hand in hand.”
“The construction we carry out will have to be of a different class now. We have to have long-term planning, not patchwork – keeping in mind the interests of the state for the next 100 to 200 years. It has to be sustainable development.”
Bahuguna dismissed the figure of 500 dams, given by some environmentalists as the number built or planned in the mountainous state, as a “myth” but did not give a total himself.
According to Uttarakhand Jal Vidhut Nigam Ltd, the state-run hydropower company, there are 45 dams of varying size in operation and a further 199 under construction in the state – most of which are used to provide electricity to other regions of power-deficient northern India.
Environmentalists say that blasting tunnels through the Himalayas makes them more prone to landslides, and dumping waste materials during construction into rivers like the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi and Yamuna is raising the river beds, which will make them flood more easily in future.
The chief minister said he had established a body called the “Uttarakhand Relief and Reconstruction Authority” where scientists, environmentalists, geologists and other experts would oversee the planning and execution of infrastructure, including hydropower, projects.
“Let people who are experts decide what sort of dam is built – whether we should have run of the river projects, how many dams,” he said. “I am not rigid that I require so many dams but I do require some dams. If you don’t have hydro-energy, then we will go back to the 15th Century and light lamps.”
Responding to criticism for allowing unregulated buildings to spread along the riverbanks, the chief minister said that while some construction might be illegal, the devastation had occurred mainly because rivers had changed their course and now flowed in areas that had never before been considered flood-prone.
He said that as a result of the floods, he was enforcing a law banning all construction on dried-up river beds.
Bahuguna now faces the daunting task of reconstruction and while the cost of this is now being assessed, he said he expected it to run to hundreds of millions of dollars – some of which is likely to be funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Floodwaters swept away thousands of homes, schools, hotels and other buildings built too close to collapsing river banks, while landslides sent mud and boulders hurtling down steep mountainsides, burying buildings and breaking up roads.
“Around 200 of my bridges have been washed away, nearly 5,000 roads damaged, connectivity to 4,300 villages snapped -- electricity and water supplies disrupted, telephone lines collapsed,” Bahuguna said.
The biggest expense will be flood-control measures to try to reduce the impact of such a disaster in the future, he said.
“If I cannot prevent the rivers from changing course, all my highly populated cities which are on riverbanks will be threatened. We will build permanent embankments.”